Saturday 3 October 2015

half a league, half a league, half a league onward

Though there are of course many historical pitched-battles and sieges that are received through careful scholarship that dissect the propaganda of the victors and the element of psychological warfare that’s always been upheld on the home-front, the first truly modern war in the way that we think of it, with embedded correspondence and mediated public sentiment was the international quagmire—from which we’ve never managed to extricate ourselves—that spanned from 1853 to 1856 called the Crimean War. For a war with so many modern elements, including explosives, rail-transportation and the concepts of triage and sanitation through hospital adminstratrix Florence Nightingale, it was very much rooted in religious contentions with the Russian Empire’s desire for crusade and recapturing the Holy Land from the Ottomans. Previous conflict, with collaboration among later belligerents, had established British protectorates for Christian enclaves, with the collateral control of the Suez shipping-lanes also under British mandate. Banking on continued support from the French and British (who had previously allied with them against French hegemony during the height of the Napoleonic Wars), Russia moved to attack the Ottoman territories and claim the Holy Land for the Orthodox Church, enraging Napoleon III, who felt he owed his legitimacy to papal allegiance—but the various controlling churches were pretty much pleased with the arrangements as they stood and had expressed no ambition to be liberated.
Despite confessional differences, France sided with Britain and the Ottoman Empire to rebuff the Russian advance. It strikes me as strange quirk of the march of history that Fredric Auguste Bartholdi’s work that would eventually become known as the Statue of Liberty was originally conceived to commemorate the to be dynamited Suez Canal, but due to the conflict she was sent to America instead. I wonder how that conversation went. As much as religious intrigues were brought down onto the mundane level and invoked as a casus belli and the home-front exposed to developments in real-time—something that the rear-detachment in England could really rally around, far greater than unmaterialised consequences and grand engineering projects. The immortal prosody by Lord Tennyson, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was interned in the public imagination nearly as quickly as the latest news dispatches and was an invocation, “Like Remember the Alamo,” that victory might be snatched from the hands of defeat—though the Franco-British powers had the upper-hand and were just ensuring that this advantage be retained. It is dangerous to second-guess the purity of one’s intent, but Russia—with access blocked to the Black Sea because of Ottoman control, had historically lacked routes for trade until the foundation of Saint Petersburg on the navigable Volga some one hundred and fifty years prior, the port built to better supply the British with raw materials, lumber, to build up their naval prowess. Having their export limited to this one centre of exchange, Imperial Russia embarked on a series of desperate but dogged overtures for the taking and keeping of the strategic stronghold of Sevastopol and thus access to the sea. The terms of surrender were rather humiliating for Russia in the end with all gains capitulated and Russia cut-off from international markets—at least to a large extent as only the inland routes of Saint Petersburg and the northern Baltic outpost of Archangelsk in the White Sea was not reachable in the Winter months and had been somewhat decomissioned in favour of promoting the city of spires and masts on the Volga—created to counter-balance the mercantile impositions. The Russian Empire was not allowed to keep a fleet in the Black Sea until the defeat of the Ottomans in War World I and the subsequent Bolshevik revolution that saw that Imperium reconstituted under new auspices. The immediate effects of this crushing commercial defeat further brokered the sale of Alaskan territory to the US—fearing that the lands would just be taken away as retribution by British-Canada, but if they sold, however unwillingly, at least Russia would get something out of the transaction.